Upon arrival in Scotland, prepare for red eyes, a parched mouth and sore muscles. Unless you're a seasoned traveler used to intercontinental travel, or maybe had a lay-flat seat in business class, you're probably not going to be able to head straight out of customs to Carnoustie and shoot your handicap.
But the last thing any North American should do upon a morning arrival in Europe is take a nap -- it could throw off your whole sleep schedule for days (trust me, trying to find something to do in the Scottish Highlands at 4 a.m. isn't easy). Once you're off the plane, it's best to stay moderately active, just enough to not notice you didn't sleep the night before, until after dinner, when you can finally rest your head for a full night's sleep.
I've found, over numerous trips to the U.K. and Ireland, that the best way to stay busy and refreshed on your first day is to set up an afternoon tee time on a shorter, unsung (and usually more affordable) course. It's a great way to get acclimated to the breeze while also getting some bump-and-run experience under your belt. And hold off on the money games until the second day.
Here are five great clubs to start your golf trip in Scotland.
Crail Golfing Society
With a cliff-top location on the easternmost Neuk of Fife, a steady breeze and lots of sunshine woke me up the last time I arrived in Scotland and made the 90-minute drive from Edinburgh to this 36-hole club. You can start on the old Balcomie Links, a less than 6,000-yard course with wide playing corridors and not a whole lot of trouble besides the occasional deep bunker and a few holes playing beside the sea. Or, play the newer Craighead Links, a Gil Hanse design that is a little longer but still relatively mellow compared to demanding, high-ticket courses nearby like St. Andrews and Kingsbarns. After golf, you can head into the clubhouse, have a hearty bowl of chili, make the drive back to St. Andrews for a pint and get ready for a round at St. Andrews after a full night's sleep.
Kintyre Course at Turnberry Resort
Don't spend $300 on the famous Open Championship Ailsa links without first getting a proper warm-up next door on Turnberry's Kintyre Course. A Donald Steel design, you'll still have the lighthouse and Ailsa Craig in view to go along with a design that's interesting, playable and still a unique, authentic links.
Queen's Course at Gleneagles Resort
If your first stop off the plane is the five-star Gleneagles Resort, grab a massage, hang by the pool and enjoy a leisurely lunch. Once you're ready to play some holes, avoid the Ryder Cup-host PGA Centenary Course (it's a penal Jack Nicklaus design made for the pros; play it or the King's Course the next day). Instead, take a walk on one of the great less than 6,000-yard golf courses in existence, the Queen's Course, a James Braid classic from the 1920s. The heathland setting is surreal, and while the course is no pushover, it's a round you can play in about three hours. Gleneagles also has a lovely little pitch-and-putt course on the front lawn that might be your speed.
Kilspindie Golf Club
In the shadow of Muirfield and North Berwick, Kilspindie Golf Club is a tiny club in the heart of East Lothian that welcomes arrival-day golfers with a par 69 that maxes out at 5,500 yards. The course begins with a modest par 3 that plays out toward the sea. From there, it's mostly short par 4s, all overlooking the sea on gently rolling terrain. Members can get around this course in less than three hours and you should be able to as well. You can also play one of Gullane Golf Club's back-up courses, Gullane No. 2 or Gullane No. 3, which are as interesting as famed Gullane No. 1, just without as much of the sea view and length.
St. Andrews Links Trust
With seven courses at the St. Andrews Links Trust, don't feel you need to walk straight off the plane into the walk-on line at the Old Course. The remaining courses often have walk-on tee times available in the afternoon. The Jubilee Course and New Course are both worthy links courses played on the same crisp, sandy turf as the Old. Even less expensive and easier are the Eden Course and Strathtyrum Course. Or, play an easy nine holes on the Balgove Course -- or simply whack some putts around on the Himalayas putting course for a bit.